My father passed away five years ago. One year after his death, almost to the day, my brother told me he had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His life expectancy is 3-5 years. My brother has since lost his ability to walk, talk, and even eat.
Loss doesn’t always come through a disease, but may occur through a broken friendship, a painful breakup, or reduced independence. The Scriptures talk about Christians as exiles and strangers in the world, and coping with loss can highlight this spiritual homelessness. Loss and suffering are part of a formative and lifelong human pilgrimage. By pilgrimage, I mean that our journey with grief is of serious spiritual significance, and the way is fraught with a combination of danger, fear, comfort, and joy. How specifically might the Christian faith instruct us on our pilgrimage of spiritual growth? Though I have not arrived at the end of grief, over the past five years the following two Scriptural motifs, or themes, have refreshed and encouraged me on my way, and I hope they will do the same for you.
First, loss is a common human experience and it should be emotively mourned. Stoicism is not next to godliness. In the midst of tragedy, we are often, implicitly and explicitly, encouraged to ignore our sadness, pain, and distress. Well-meaning friends and family offer platitudes and catch-phrases that promote a cheery attitude in the midst of loss. We are prompted to make immediate meaning out of our tragedy and give shallow answers to catastrophic losses. Often, we move on but never express our sorrow, thus forsaking the grace, love, and comfort of God found in this painful journey.
In the Christian tradition, we find facing grief an integral part of faith and practice. The founder of Christianity was a man acquainted with sorrow and grief (Isaiah 53:4). Christ wept at the tomb of his friend (John 11:35). Moreover, Jesus was described as one who “took up our pain and bore our suffering,” (Isaiah 53:4) and encouraged us to take up our cross (Matthew 16:23). Even the letters of Paul exhorted Christians to know Christ “and the fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). The witness of Scripture and the Church show us the importance of facing our grief and embracing our suffering.
Part of facing our loss means expressing our emotional turmoil to God. Christians call this prayer. Scripture exhorts people to be honest with God in the midst of loss. He is not threatened by our honesty but entreated by it. The Psalter offers us emotive prayers that fly in the face of hypocritical pietism. True prayer is crying out to God, as the Psalmist, says, “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Christian prayer includes following the example of Christ by asking, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The entire Christian tradition propels us to process openly and honestly our grief before God.
The second theme that I have experientially rediscovered is that God understands loss and is with us during our suffering. As I openly process my grief before God, I am reminded that he understands. He understands because Father, Son, and Spirit have experienced loss. While reading John Stott’s The Cross, I was encouraged that God is a suffering God. Christ suffered loss. We find this when he is at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, and through his death on the cross. On the cross, Jesus embraced our suffering, pain, and evil. Christ himself took on an unjust punishment and his life was cut short. He faced the reality of injustice and embraced his road to the cross. Christ understands what it means to suffer.
Not only that, but the Father, Son, and Spirit experienced infinite loss at the cross when the eternal fellowship was broken and Christ was utterly forsaken. At Golgotha, Jesus was abandoned so that we would never be alone. After his resurrection, Jesus told us that he would never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) and through faith, we are united to him in his death and resurrection. Therefore, our bond to Christ is experienced most intimately in our suffering and our pilgrimage most closely resembles his when we embrace our cross.
Christ suffered at the cross for us and now continues to suffer with us. He is there in our valley of death, and he comforts us, preparing us a table in the presence of our enemies (Psalms 23). Therefore, I encourage you with the words from an old sermon; “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses… Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4: 15-16). Let us then fly to him in honest soul-wrenching prayer, knowing that because he was forsaken, we are never alone.
— by Caleb Harper, Chaplain at Oklahoma Palliative & Hospice Care